Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy by Tony Medina & 13 Artists

Published by Penny Candy Books

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Summary:  Tony Medina has written thirteen poems in tanka form (5-7-5-7-7), inspired by photos of the Washington D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia.  The poems capture emotions from despair (“Payday don’t pay much/Every breath I take is taxed/The kind of life where/I’ll have to take out a loan/To pay back them other loans”) to hope (“I went to this school/When I was a shawty rock/Breakin’ in the yard/Wanted to be a rap star–/But a teacher’s not too far!” with an illustration of a young man in dreadlocks teaching science to an enthusiastic group of students).  The opening two pages are a free verse meditation on black boys ending with “We celebrate their preciousness and creativity/We cherish their lives”. Includes profiles of the thirteen artists who provided the illustrations and an author’s note about the title of the book, the tanka form of poetry, and the Anacostia neighborhood. 40 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  A celebration of African-American boys in deceptively simple poetry, with a wide variety of beautiful, intriguing artwork.  Kids who have mastered the haiku may be inspired to attempt the more complex tanka.

Cons:  Although I liked the compact size of the book, the artwork seemed to warrant a larger, picture book sized format.

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Every Month Is a New Year by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

Published by Lee & Low Books

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Summary:  Designed like a calendar, opening at the bottom instead of the right side, this book explores how a new year is celebrated in cultures around the world.  Eighteen poems celebrate the new year, beginning with “Midnight Ball Drop” on December 31 in New York City, and wrapping up with “Las Doce Uvas de la Suerte” in Spain the following December 31.  In between, there are visits to Scotland, Russia, China, Iran, Thailand, Jordan, Chile, New Zealand, India, and Ecuador, and celebrations that take place in every month of the year. Includes several pages with additional information about each holiday; a glossary and pronunciation guide; and author’s sources.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A wealth of information about a wide variety of cultures, all in a clever package–a book designed like a calendar.  The collage illustrations add texture and plenty of color to the poems.

Cons:  I would have preferred the information about each holiday to be on the page with the poem rather than all in the back.  The poems made me curious to learn more, and it was a little unwieldy to have to keep flipping back and forth.

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The Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection edited by Colby Sharp

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  Colby Sharp, co-founder of The Nerdy Book Club, embarked on a creativity project with 44 children’s book authors and illustrators, who were each invited to create two prompts.  Mr. Sharp then sent them two prompts from other artists and asked them to create something based on one of them.  This book is the result: a collection of poems, stories, artwork, and comics. Each one shows the prompt that was given (and who made it up), followed by the creative work it inspired.  The names will be familiar to any fan of children’s literature: Lemony Snicket, Jennifer Holm, Dan Santat, Victoria Jamieson, and many, many more. The final section, entitled “Prompts for You” includes intriguing text and pictures to inspire readers.  Includes brief biographies of all the contributors and an index. 288 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This unusual book is fun to read (especially for us nerdy children’s book fans) and an inspiring look at the creative process.  There were some fun surprises (a deliciously creepy tale by Dav Pilkey comes to mind) and enough different genres to keep things interesting.  The prompts at the end will make you want to cast everything else in your life aside and start writing.

Cons:  It takes some persistence to plow through the whole book, and a few of the entries seemed like the writers kind of phoned it in.

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Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith

Published by Kids Can Press

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Summary:  Jett makes it clear from the beginning of this novel in verse that he’s had a “rotten bad year”.  After his father was imprisoned for killing a family while driving drunk, Jett’s life began to spiral downward.  He became friends with the class bully, and eventually learned that his friend has his own sad reasons for his bad behavior.  Jett’s spending the summer with his grandmother, who loves him unconditionally and uses her tough love to help him come to terms with some of the bad choices he’s made.  He and Grandma tell each other stories from their lives that help Jett to see he’s not the only one who’s made mistakes. Set on the northeast coast of Canada, Jett allows the beautiful beaches and sea help him to heal and move forward into what he hopes will be a better year for him.  232 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  A beautiful collection of poems about learning to forgive and let go of the past.  Despite Jett’s troubled past, he is a likeable narrator, and his story moves back and forth in time, allowing the reader to get to know him while slowly learning of his difficult year.

Cons:  Although the ending is ultimately hopeful, there’s a lot of sadness in the story.

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A Round of Robins by Katie Hesterman, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

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Summary: A male and female robin build a nest; before long, there are four eggs inside. Twelve days later, the babies hatch. After a period of mostly sleeping and eating, the fledglings are ready to fly. They learn to find their own food and defend themselves, and before long, Mom and Dad have an empty nest. Not for long, though; the mother lays four more eggs, and twelve days later….40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros: The first part of a robin’s life cycle is described with playful rhymes and cute illustrations that reminded me of P. D. Eastman’s The Best Nest and Are You My Mother?

Cons: Some back matter would have helped explain some of the poems and made this more useful as an informational book.

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When Paul Met Artie: The Story of Simon and Garfunkel by G. Neri, illustrated by David Litchfield

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  This story of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel begins at their Central Park concert on September 19, 1981, then travels back in time 30 years to when the two boys were growing up in 1950’s Queens.  They became friends in a sixth-grade production of Alice in Wonderland, and were inspired by Elvis and other early rockers to try harmonizing, later adding Paul on guitar. At 15, they had their first hit record as Tom and Jerry (Simon and Garfunkel was deemed to Jewish-sounding for 1950’s America), but later recordings failed to catch on.  They met up again in the early 1960’s and released another record, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., another flop, except that one song, “The Sound of Silence”, slowly started climbing the charts.  The book ends on New Year’s Day, 1966, when that song reached number one. Includes an afterword, discography, bibliography, and list of musical connections.  48 pages; ages 10 and up.

Pros:  An absorbing history of one of the greatest duos of the rock and roll era.  Each page is a poem titled with one of Simon and Garfunkel’s songs, beginning with “My Little Town”, describing the suburb of Queens where the two grew up.  The illustrations are occasionally goofy, as the two boys were, but really capture the changing times from the 1950’s to the 1960’s. Any fan of their music will enjoy this history and undoubtedly learn a few things as well.

Cons:  Although this looks like an elementary school purchase, it would probably be more interesting to middle schoolers and older, and definitely requires some familiarity with Simon and Garfunkel’s music to be fully appreciated.

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Knockout by K. A. Holt

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  In these sequel to House Arrest, Levi, the sickly baby from the first book, is now in 7th grade.  Timothy, his older brother and the protagonist of book one, is applying to medical school.  Levi’s health has improved, but he still has some limitations, and his mother and brother tend to be overprotective.  His divorced dad is more laid-back and encourages Levi to try a sport. When Levi has a few sessions at the boxing gym, he proves to be a natural.  He ends up lying to both parents in order to continue pursuing the sport. In addition, his tendencies to be the class clown are pushing away his best friend, Tam, who is spending a lot of time with a new girl.  A medical crisis forces Levi to be honest with his friends and family, and to look at what is most important to him and what he can do to move in a new direction. 288 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of K. A. Holt’s other books, as well as Kwame Alexander’s Booked, The Crossover, and Rebound will enjoy this fast-paced sports-themed novel in verse.  

Cons:  It took me a little while to warm up to Levi and get engaged in his story.

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